Thursday, April 10, 2014

INKBLOTS, arrogant scientist, Russian governess, Indian culture, and Vietnam

Dr. Wolfe, scientist devoid of humility
Inkblots with five gents this evening, warm sunshine and spring birds flitting and singing on the wisteria at the Bond's gate. Maryhill red and Columbia Crest Amitage all around.

I commented about authentic integration of our writing. Writing what we need rather than trying to please either secularist (and so feel like we need to paste in sketchy material), or the story somehow does not include a gospel priority but the writer feels like it ought to, so he pastes in some Christian lingo to check that box. None of this is good for fiction writing, for compelling story telling, nor is it good for the gospel. I believe the gospel is absolutely my highest priority when I write anything, and I hope that that means it is so integral and essential to where I'm going in the fiction, every detail subordinate to the glory of God, that the story would not be complete, would not work, would be empty and shallow, without leaving the reader longing for truth, heart sick for it. Imagine Jesus telling a parable to titillate secularists or to paste in a Christian message as an obligatory afterthought. Christ's parables, his story telling, was a unified whole, every imaginative device, every detail, marshaled to unmask the problem and placard its only solution.

Alan leads off with a poem he has written that reminds me of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Hiawatha from the shores of Gitche Gumee, musical and lyric. Alan read without prelude, no explanation, just launched in. It was magical. After he told us it was autobiographical, inspired by an incident in his life, an uncle who passed away and at his funeral just this week he met another relative; conversation with him led to this prose experiment in an effort to find his way into his fiction work shared recently. Patrick commented on balsam and rock, used repetitively, so it seemed but maybe intentional. All this led into a discussion of Indian culture then and now.

Patrick says his problem is too much material, very fertile times for his imagination lately, it sounds like to me. He has been inspired by author Gene Wolfe. Wolfe wrote a series of stories with key words woven in throughout. Dr. Wolfe and Island of Death, is the name of the story. Felt like it should be a journal but doesn't like the style because it lacks the interactive character of dialogue. What a crack-up! Programmed dialogue between a computer Dante and a pompous scientist, about another scientist who has been stealing or plagiarizing from Dr. Wolfe. Reporters and journalists are found to be the most unreliable witnesses. Willingly deceive. I love the fluidity of your prose, personality coming through clearly through tone of voice, asides, and witty quips. This is one in a series of intriguing short stories, maybe a bit longish for short stories, the largest being 13,000. Alan suggested that his reading group (Who, what, when, where, and wine) read Patrick's short stories and offer their thoughts and reactions.

Doug Mc suggested that we can reconfigure what we do at least some of the time. What if one guy sent out a chapter or short story to all and then we read and came together to critique and comment on the whole story rather than just a ten minute read. Doing Patrick's yarn first this way. Dougie is doing a further episode in his Vietnam yarn, Bruce the hick is reading World Book Encyclopedia then distilling it in his colloquial drawl. Vietnam peasant featured in this episode. What is raspberry and cinnamon that is French in the pastry department? The French and German conversation is a good idea, but I'm not sure if you got everything out of it that was there. The prayer and the Amen came out of order to my thinking. He went on asking for a speedy conclusion to the hostilities, and then the Amen at the end, not first. The background to the history of the conflict does drag a bit in my opinion. I think you need to tighten it up a bit, give us the essential facts only. Maybe you're trying to give us too much all at once here. Could you spread it out, parse it out over more conversations than just this one? Avoid the history bomb, laying out a body of historical context but that is not actually a genuine part of the fiction. Give the reader only what is essential to know at this point in the yarn, the reader wanting more, will read on, then give them more as it is essential to the tale itself. Have the listener receive it, disagree with it, push back in his thinking. Make the history background essential to the fiction you're telling.

I commented about authentic integration of our writing. Writing what we need rather than trying to please either secularist (and so feel like we need to paste in sketchy material), or the story somehow does not include a gospel priority but the writer feels like it ought to, so he pastes in some Christian lingo to check that box. None of this is good for fiction writing, for compelling story telling, nor is it good for the gospel. I believe the gospel is absolutely my highest priority when I write anything, and I hope that that means it is so integral and essential to where I'm going in the fiction, every detail subordinate to the glory of God, that the story would not be complete, would not work, would be empty and shallow, without leaving the reader longing for truth, heart sick for it. Imagine Jesus telling a parable to titillate secularists or to paste in a Christian message as an obligatory afterthought. Christ's parables, his story telling, was a unified whole, every imaginative device, every detail, marshaled to placard the problem and its only solution.

John reads from his Russian yarn. Working on altering the governess so she could be a Huguenot working for a Russian family. Problem of getting Russian down fluently when coming as a French speaker. What is your narrative objective for developing her character? What is her primary role in the story line? All fiction is a contrivance; it is the author's task to convince the reader that the contrivance is authentic, that it works, all skepticism gone.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Oxford: student reflections on the tour

CJ led off with appreciation for the time of singing Saturday night with host families in Scotland 

Playing British monopoly Libby found unique with all the British locations

Sarah D was particulate moved by the rich heartfelt praying of Scottish Christians

Shauna was impressed by God's creation seen at Hadrian's Wall. "Made you feel small but safe in the Creator."

Host family tried to replicate an American thanksgiving dinner for Sarah W

Anne appreciated Churchill's Chartwell. And expressed gratitude for Mr. Hannula and Bond

Isabel and Breah appreciated seeing the Holy Spirit at work at Cambridge Presbyterian, and the contrast with the rote formalism at Anglican Canterbury service

Don loved seeing the students interacting and enjoying each other and the leaders guiding them (one of our great parent chaperones, couldn't do it without you)

Evangeline enjoyed the chaperone times together and seeing God's providence bringing us all together for such a warm and enjoyable time spent together

Gareth believes he can sleep anywhere after the night crossing to France

And prayers of heart-felt thanksgiving offered by many conclude our last devotion time of the tour

Off to CS Lewis' church, grave, and his home the Kilns in Headington Quarry

Thanks for all your prayers! God our Heavenly Father has wonderfully answered them. 

Any adults and families eager for a similar adventure, I have a few places left in our Knox @ 500 Scotlad Tour in June. Visit

We just saw Queen Elizabeth--video

Coming out of Runnymede, suddenly a helicopter went over, blue lights flashing a vanguard of official motor cycles roared by, a flurry of other official looking vehicles--and then a custom black Rolls Royce (I think) passed in front of the coach; wearing one of her lovely hats, sat the queen in the back seat. Notice on the video her (a) hand about to be raised in an English wave. Now if only she had invited CHS students to tea at Windsor Castle. Maybe next time.

CHS at Runnymede 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Oxford, where oxen forded the river

 "It is easy to forget," Lewis writes in
A Preface to Paradise Lost, "that the man who writes a good love sonnet needs not only to be enamoured of a woman, but also to be enamoured of the Sonnet." 

 In The Allegory of Love, Lewis observes
that his ideal day "would be to read the Italian epic - to be always convalescent from some small illness and always seated in a window that overlooked the sea, there to read these poems eight
hours of each happy day." 

Our associations with the word "puritan" have to be almost entirely corrected, he writes; "Whatever else they were they were not sour, gloomy, or severe; nor did their enemies bring any such charge
against them." He goes on to argue that Puritan Christians of the sixteenth century
were accused of being "not too grim, but too glad to be true." 

Lewis made the case that every instant of history is significant to the whole and defined history as "a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of such moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination." 

Companion of Fools or Friend of God?

Devotions on the road to Oxford


Why have we been doing what we are doing for the last two weeks? Why go to all the trouble and expense to see all that we have seen and experienced in the UK and Normandy the last days? If we could boil it all down, there might be no better way of putting it than to say it the way the writer of Proverbs put it. "He who walks with the wise grows wise, but the companion of fools suffers harm."

I wonder if Shakespeare was thinking of this verse and this pervasive biblical truth about human nature when he created Falstaff and Prince Hal, making concerted schemes to become a companion of fools, and then to imagine that he could be with them and not suffer harm in doing so? I think Shakespeare got this right, on some level.


The Apostle Paul put it better to the Corinthians, "Bad company corrupts good morals."


Most of us nod in agreement, but I wonder if we take the Scriptures as seriously as we should here. Clearly the Enemy does not want us to take it very seriously. Remember what Lewis has Screwtape tell his nephew regarding tempting the patient with new friendships? Make him believe that his friendship with these bright, witty, sophisticated, superficially intelligent folks is "trivial and revocable." No big deal, what's wrong with... In other words, whatever you do, don't let him "be cautious in friendship."


Elsewhere in Proverbs we are told that "the righteous man is cautious in friendship, but the way of the foolish leads him astray."


The Apostle James tells us that if we want to be friends with the world we become enemies of God. Enemies. Jesus often referred to his disciples as children and as his friends. That is an amazing thing, isn't it, to be called a friend of One who made the universe, who humbled himself, came to earth, lived a life in perfect obedience to his Father's will, imputed that perfect righteousness to my account, and then laid down his perfect life for my wretched and unworthy life?


"He who walks with the wise grows wise." That is what we have been doing for these important days in your lives. We have been walking with the venerable dead, the truly wise, though far from perfect, from previous centuries. Rehearse back through them in your mind... Bunyan and Bilney, bishop martyrs we will be thinking about in a few hours time in Oxford, Lewis, French Huguenots, Knox and the Covenanters, and now our dear and very much living friends in Newmilns, Scotland.


Friendship with the wise, with the people of God costs something. It cost many of the heroes of the faith their lives. But make no mistake about it, friendship with the world costs you something too. It costs eternity.


John Owen, the Calvin of England, whose grave we saw at Bunhill Fields London said that for most of us our problem is not a lack of instruction, but a lack of careful consideration and application of instruction. We want you to consider and apply all that you have learned about this reality: friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God, that the companion of fools suffers harm, that if you walk with the wise you will grow wise, that bad company corrupts good morals.


So what do we do with it all? How do we consider this? How do we apply this experience so that it sticks, it works, it lasts, it actually changes you?


Last night Pastor Kenneth Ross called you to be faithful, urged you to faithfulness. But do you remember what he said next? If you look to yourself you will not be faithful. Recall Ian Hamilton last Lord's Day in Cambridge: stop looking within yourself, look out and up to Jesus Christ.


What does that actually mean to look to Jesus? Jesus on every page, the whole of the Bible is one story, the story of Jesus Christ. And that means that the book of Proverbs is about Jesus Christ too. We could hear these words of instruction about being cautious in friendship from Proverbs and take a deep breath, clench our teeth, and try harder, make new resolves, become more self disciplined, determine to be more upright. But it won't work. You will be back to your old ways and friends and influences soon enough. I promise you this. It will not work.


And then there is the still worse outcome. Resolving to change and be good, setting about on your own self-salvation enterprise, you actually do make moral progress, you do appear on the outside to become wise. Why is this worse than going back to the trough of worldy friends and influences? Because it will make you become like the self-righteous elder brother, externally obedient and faithful but as Jesus put it, "a white-washed tomb," looking good on the outside but internally dead, rotten, putrefying, and lost.


Proverbs is about gaining wisdom, but, remember, we make an enormous mistake when we read the book if we don't realise, on every page, that wisdom comes down from above, that Jesus himself is the wisdom that has come down to save us, that wisdom is not a thing you add to yourself by self-discipline. Wisdom is a Person, the God Man, Jesus Christ.


The Lord must have things for us to learn in the book of Hebrews. Uncoordinated by us, but orchestrated perfectly by the Providence and wisdom of our Heavenly Father, last Sunday in Cambridge and here again in Newmilns we heard sermons on Hebrews. Chapter 6 and chapter 10.


Consider with me for a moment what chapter 11 is all about. It gives us a panoply of heroes of the faith; we are shown the great cloud of witnesses we are surrounded by, or put another way, the friendships we are to have if we are to be wise. But who are these people? Are they great models of virtue? Abraham, Noah, David...? The history of redemption in which they appear reveals them as pretty messed up folks. So to what are they witness?


Grace. They desperately needed grace and so do we.


And then comes chapter 12 of Hebrews. "Fix your eyes on Jesus the Author and Perfecter of faith."As if to say, don't stop at merely looking at Abraham or David, mere me who miserably failed to obey and be faithful; look beyond them to the one who fulfilled all the conditions of the covenant for us, on our behalf, for our salvation.


"He who walks with the wise grows wise..." Why have we done all this these two weeks? To give you wise friends for life, certainly, but only as a means to a far more important end. Knox, Latimer, Bunyan, Newton--the only thing that made these men worthy objects of our travels was they grasp of the grace of Jesus Christ in the gospel. Why are we doing this. So that you, like all of these, might know, as it says in Proverbs,the "Friend who sticks closer than a brother," Jesus Christ.

Look out and up to him, eyes off of you, eyes off of the world, your heart, soul, strength, and mind agog with the Wisdom that has come down from above, in love with the friend of sinners, slack-jaw in wonder--all your days--at the Saviour, Jesus Christ.


Saturday, April 5, 2014

Knox's first job--teaching squirrelly boys

An excerpt from THE THUNDER (pictures from Knox's Edinburgh below)

Chapter one

Dead Bishop’s Castle

I was born in a castle. Hugh Douglas, Laird of Longniddry, was my father, and the only home I had known was the Douglas ancestral keep. Yet it makes too free with veracity to call it a castle. It was not a proper castle, one queens and fine ladies strut about within. In truth, it was a damp, smelly, crumbling fortified house, more akin to a vertical stone casket than a lavishly appointed bishop’s castle.

Here in late April, 1547 I found myself—for good or ill—hemmed in by the fortification of St. Andrews Castle, a proper castle, a veritable palace bedecked for a bishop, now a dead bishop. Much of the luxury of the place, so it seemed, had died with him. Cowering behind the crenellation that day, I mentally attempted to calculate the thickness and stoutness of the stones that made up the dead Bishop’s battlements facing the town. I breathed shallow so as to avoid the full force of the pinching odors of amassed humanity that hung palpably in the air.

The town rumbled with activity: shouting men, bawling oxen straining at their carts laden with timber and stone, and with victuals for the soldiers, spades and barrows, and laden with other things—cannons, barrels of gunpowder, ball, shot, and the like—ordnance, I’d heard it termed. Above all, there were the shouts and cries of men. My shallow breathing, in truth, came less from the stench and far more from gnawing anxiety at the deadly preparations surrounding me and St. Andrews Castle.

With a shudder, I turned my back on the cacophony and eased myself away from the scene. Crossing the paving stones of the inner-court of the castle, I mounted a narrow stairway that led up to the battlements of the dead bishop’s castle jutting into the North Sea.

As I climbed, I tried to divert my eyes from the blackened stones of the blockhouse that contained the Bottle Dungeon. My abhorrence for enclosed places sent a shudder down my frame. The place was a veritable hell hole, a constricting cavern into which condemned prisoners were lowered on a rope, there they crouched amongst the putrid filth of former occupants, surrounded by the foul scratching and gnawing of rats, there to await the rack or the stake. For Mr. Wishart, as I had often heard, it had been the stake.

I broke into a run on the last few treads, leaving the dungeon behind me. Through a notch in the wall, I squinted into the distance where the gray water met the gray skyline. I’d heard talk that the Queen Regent had petitioned the French to send their navy, thereby hemming us in by both land and sea.

Since first hearing of her scheme, I often studied that horizon, my mind troubled. But as with other days, I saw no ships bearing toward St. Andrews in the grayness—not today. Perhaps they would not come. Navies were in much demand these days, so I had been told. Perhaps the French were occupied with busting down other castles, too busy for St. Andrews.

Inching my feet forward, and steadying myself with my hands against the stone battlements, I eased closer to the edge. With my eyes clamped shut, I breathed in the salty air and listened to the foamy shying of the surf. I felt a lurching of my insides as I forced my eyes open and looked down the castle wall direct into the sea. My fingernails clawed the stone edge. A gull hovered in the breeze above me, wings spread wide in flight but going nowhere. It mocked me with its screeching. Far below, and surrounding three sides of the castle, the frigid North Sea pummeled the walls. In the backwater of that pummeling, the sea churned like boiling tar in a vast caldron. My stomach did much the same.


For an instant my heart halted—so it seemed--and then thundered back to life. I nearly sank to me knees in fright.

“George, where’ve you been?” asked my brother. “And do be tending of your eye balls, lad. They’re a-bulging out of your head again. I swear, one of these days you’ll be making them so wide and gogglee they’ll come a-popping out of your sockets like when farmer McAllister is wringing the necks of his chickens and--”

I’d heard this all before and cut him off. “Francis, if you do that sort of thing again, I’ll end up tottering clean over the battlements and splitting my crown on them rocks. And if there’s anything left of me, I’ll be drowned and battered in the sea. It’ll be all your doing, Brother.”

”And eaten by a haddock,” he added, clamping me on the back in what he intended to be a good-natured gesture, but one that I felt nearly launched me over the wall. “You’re always fretting yourself, George. Eyes goggling out of your head. That’s your problem.”

There was no denying of what he said. For weeks now I had felt myself in a perpetual state of fretfulness.

“Now, you must come along with me,” he continued. “Master Knox’ll be expecting us in the chapel for our lessons.”

“There’s time,” I said.

“Which is what you always say,” said Francis. “Which is why you’re always late.”

“I’ll not be late.”

This being besieged was all a game to my brother Francis and Alexander Cockburn our childhood friend and fellow student. To me it was no game. Dutifully, I began following him down the narrow stone stairs.

“Why did they do it?” I blurted after him.

Francis stopped and turned slowly toward me. He heaved a sigh. “If you don’t ken the answer to that, you’ve gone daft. ‘Why did they do it?’ you ask. They did it because fornicating Cardinal Beaton was a monster. His vows of chastity notwithstanding, his holiness fathered no less than seven bastard offspring. If anyone in God’s universe had it coming to him, Beaton did. That’s why they did it.”

“Who counted?”

He scowled and shook his head. “Counted what?”

“His… well, his offspring?”

“Brother, there you’ve gone and clean missed the point again,” he said....

 Order a signed copy of THE MIGHTY WEAKNESS OF JOHN KNOX for yourself or for a friend.

Haggis--intestinal fortitude

What must the origins be of a national dish that consists of chopped up sheep innards crammed in a sheep stomach with some oats? My theory is that with a history of a raiding and pillaging southern neighbor who would descend on the people and slaughter all their animals and spoil their grain in the muck, leaving behind scattered oats trampled in the mud--and gut piles. From these meager remains came HAGGIS! Perhaps this is the source of Scottish intestinal fortitude.

I enjoyed a wonderful dinner out with our dear friends the MacCallums at the Cochran Inn, a classic Scottish eatery, it's stones completely covered with vines.